A sensational and influential novel when it was published in paperback, Hal Ellson’s Duke followed Irving shulman’s The Amboy Dukes as a progenitor of a new literary genre: juvenile delinquency fiction. Duke was about a black Harlem gang leader who, according to the back cover of the best-selling Popular Library edition of 1949, “ran his gang of teen age hoodlums with fists, feet and a gun. His operations included rape, murder, pimping and smuggling dope. He made his own law. And his code was the savage code of the slum-jungle that was the only home he knew. . . . If you are squeamish, or if you prefer to ignore a dangerous social condition which even now is almost out of control, this novel is not for you.”
The paperback included an innovative glossary of street gang terminology, so that nondelin-quent readers could be hep to the meanings of “weed,” “bomber,” “H,” “Juice man,” and a few dozen other terms not then recognized by Webster’s. Unlike the rather conventional third-person narration in Shulman’s novel, Ellson told Duke in the idiomatic, semiliterate voice of his main character, giving the topic a blunt immediacy:
When we got back to the neighborhood everybody is high as hell. There’s big news. Soon as we drew up to the curb boys who didn’t come with us crowded around. The Skibos came through, they said. They raided and stomped hell out of a couple of our boys and ran.
That got me wild. I told my cats to get their artillery. . . . I went for my pistol . . . when I got back to the corner my boys are waiting for me. There was a real mob.
“The mighty Counts is ready,” Chink said. “Do we rumble tonight or don’t we?”
“Yeah, man!” I said. “Tonight we rumble!”
Ellson followed Duke with Tomboy, about a young Manhattan girl gang member. Many 1950s juvenile delinquent paperbacks contained prefaces or afterwords from psychiatrists or civic leaders trying to put the youthful bad behavior into clinical context. Bantam’s Tomboy contained a pompous introduction by Dr. Fredric Wertham, the era’s notorious self-appointed decency vigilante and scourge of comic topics. There was also a curiously scolding blurb from the Christian Science Monitor: “Some readers may feel that the author could have presented his case more persuasively by replacing some of the sensationalism with constructive scenes, but Mr. Ellson seems deliberately to have avoided this method.” And amen to that, daddy-o, Ellson’s satisfied readers might have responded.
After Tomboy came The Golden Spike, a devastating portrait of a young heroin addict, and then 12 more novels of New York lowlife and delinquency, raw-nerved street sagas that made Ellson the incontrovertible king of juvenile delinquent fiction. With good cause, his topics were noted for their authenticity. Throughout his novel-writing career, Ellson was employed as a recreational therapist at a Manhattan city hospital, working with violent or otherwise troubled youths off the meanest streets of New York.
“It was a time when the New York neighborhoods were filled with these teenage gangs,” Ellson recalled for this author. “Terrific hostility between them, lots of violence, killings. I saw all kinds of mixed up and crazy things at that job, and I took my notebook everywhere I went. I made lots of notes and a lot of the stuff in my topics was just writing down what these young people said.” He wrote the novels in longhand while traveling to and from work on the subway. He wrote 1,200 words a day, 600 on the way to the job and 600 on the way home.
Ellson said many of the kids looked at him as a father confessor and would tell him everything. They knew he could be trusted not to repeat anything to the cops. “After Duke came out they’d be lined up waiting to talk to me, kids accused of a couple of murders, saying ‘Want to hear a good story?’ I got all kinds of shocking stuff from these kids. I had earned their respect, they believed in me, and I never gave them away. If they were in serious trouble I would try to steer them to a psychiatrist I trusted, but I never gave them away.”
- Blood on the Ivy (1971);
- Duke (1949);
- Games (1967);
- Golden Spike, The (1952);
- I’ll Fix You (1956);
- Jailbait Street (1959);
- Killer’s Kiss, A (1959);
- Knife, The (1961);
- Nest of Fear (1961);
- Nightmare Street (1965);
- Rock (1953);
- Stairway to Nowhere (1959);
- Tell Them Nothing (1956);
- That Glover Woman (1967);
- This Is It (1956); Tomboy (1950)